Physical Activity in the Workplace: Q&A with Anna Davison

Anna Davison, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at ukactive shares her thoughts on the importance of physical activity in the workplace in enhancing your wellbeing. 

Q: Why is physical activity so important for your overall health and wellbeing?

"In the UK, we are facing a physical inactivity crisis, especially in relation to the workplace. Research from the Lancet shows that office workers spending eight hours a day sat at a desk are up to 60% more likely to die early from diseases such as cancer and heart disease; but it also shows that high levels of moderate intensity physical activity can eliminate the increased risk of death associated with high sitting time.

Not only can being active during the working day effectively save lives, it can also have a number of additional benefits for individuals, society and employers. Being active can also have a positive impact on mental health, build inclusion and team ethos, increase productivity, increase self-confidence and support development of individual purpose. Physical activity is the golden thread that runs through our society, it unites us and on a more micro-level it can certainly also be that thread within a workplace."

Q: How can employers support the physical health of their employees?

"Wellbeing is a topic high on the agenda of many employers at the moment but it can be confusing to work out which elements to include. Embracing and encouraging physical activity in the workplace can be a great place to start when starting to think about adding value to employee wellbeing.

Like any effective workplace initiative, it’s critical that there is broad company buy-in and a demonstration that being active is not only an accepted behaviour but is encouraged at all levels. When thinking about getting a workforce more active, employers should think about three main things – opportunity, time and permission. Providing opportunities for workers to be physically active can take many forms and variety will bring additional success. Things to consider include offering free or discounted gym memberships; introducing online platforms that specialise in increasing physical activity; changes to office design; offering facilities for staff such as showers; lunchtime classes in the office; or introducing the cycle to work scheme.

However, it’s important to give employees the time and the permission to take advantage of those opportunities. This will be different for different types of businesses but might include flexible working polices, extra time in the week specifically for ‘wellbeing activities’ or building activity options into the working day.

Taking these steps will support those who know how they want to take control of their own wellbeing but employers should also think about how to engage those who maybe do not know where to start or don’t think being active is for them. There are lots of great tools to engage staff and help them understand how and why they might want to do something – this might range from wearables with related engagement platforms, inter-company challenges, access to health coaching or talks on how employees can make the most of the opportunities that are on offer. This is where thinking about how physical activity might fit with wider wellbeing or reward programmes can bring additional success."

Q: What are your top tips for getting more active during the working day?

"As an individual, there are some simple ways of getting active during the working day:

  1. Active travel. This could include anything from a 20-mile cycle to getting off the train a stop earlier (or parking further away) and walking part of your route to work.
  2. Walking meetings. Not only do these contribute to physical health – but they can drive creativity and breakdown formality to foster honest conversation. This won’t work for all meetings but try it for 1:1 catch ups, plan a route beforehand and make sure it’s not a surprise for anyone for a better chance of success.
  3. Try standing working. You don’t necessarily need sit-stand desks to do this – see if there is a high bench (often in the kitchen) that you can use to stand for a period of time. Alternatively, stand when you are on the phone.
  4. Set up a lunchtime walking / running group – get to know your colleagues and get in some lunchtime activity at the same time.
  5. Join a lunchtime Hiit or spin class at a local gym – 30 mins will be enough to get a great workout in and lots of gyms will offer these quick, high intensity workouts to fit in a lunchtime."

Q: What is ukactive doing in this space to support workplace physical health and wellbeing?

"Our mission is More People, More Active, More Often and our vision in relation to the workplace is to transform working life in the UK by being instrumental in creating a working culture and environment that allows employees to take charge of their own wellbeing, especially allowing and encouraging them to be more active.

To do this we are supporting both the fitness and leisure sector to develop opportunities that deliver what businesses want and need and also to support our members in developing great wellbeing programmes for their own staff.

There is never going to be a one size fits all approach for either businesses or for individuals. Some of the most successful programmes are those which allow physical activity to become embedded in the daily practices of the company and where the company emphasises its importance but also offers a variety of opportunities and choice to meet different needs and fitness levels.  Navigating this can obviously be a challenge, ukactive is building a research programme to explore this in more depth but can also work with businesses directly to help them navigate the fitness sector and understand how to implement physical activity programmes that will work for them."